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Stop Arms Sales: Open Markets For Middle East Exports Wider – OpEd

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By Jonathan Power*

The Middle East is going to hell in a handbasket. Israel has held its fourth election in two years. After having effectively quashed the notion of a two-state solution, the favourite for the premiership is the long-serving Benjamin Netanyahu, the principal living architect of the repression this represents. There is now effectively only one state in the old Palestine, yet most of the Arabs have no vote.

The “peace process” has become a diplomatic deception. The US has tried more times than one can count to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It has made progress only at the margins. The US has become a prop that allows Israel to lean on while it prevaricates. The US should withdraw its interest and compel the Israelis to confront their “enemy” face to face—which is what most Europeans who care about both Israel and the Palestinians want it to do. If the Israelis do want one state, they must enfranchise all the Arabs who live on the West Bank.

In Iran, the Biden administration, having promised to resurrect the nuclear peace agreement fashioned by President Barack Obama, seems to be pursuing this by a serpentine route that does nobody any good. It would be a tragedy if President Donald Trump’s poisonous legacy of tearing up the Obama deal were left to ferment.

In Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad who is up to his elbows in the blood continues his war, aided by Russia, with the US supporting various smaller factions arraigned against him, some of which are minded to support ISIS which has seen a sharp growth in its numbers. At the same time the US, once again, appears to be abandoning the Kurds, the only nation in the world that is without its own state.

In Saudi Arabia, despite President Joe Biden recently accusing its present de-facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of ordering the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he refuses to punish Saudi Arabia in any serious way. No real boycott of arms selling, apart from fudging the difference between offensive and defensive arms, even though they are used in what the White House says is Saudi’s dastardly war in neighbouring Yemen.

In Lebanon, the country is effectively under the thumb of the quasi-fascist political party, Hezbollah. Israeli attacks have elevated it to the commanding heights of Lebanese politics.

In Egypt, there is a ruthless dictator in power, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first-ever democratic government. The US under Obama decided that supporting him was the lesser evil. Egypt receives military aid worth more than all the civilian aid the US spends in the Middle East. It is meant to keep Egypt on the US side- against whom? The question is not asked.

In Iraq, society, homes and infrastructure were ripped apart by the US/UK invasion which was made on the spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Because of this ISIS was given a tremendous boost which allowed it to make an effort to topple Assad in neighbouring Syria. Present-day US/UK aid is grossly insufficient to rebuild what they destroyed.

“Something approaching free-fall”

A long essay written at the end of last year by the experienced and widely appreciated American diplomat, Chas Freeman, observed, “By now it is widely accepted that US influence in the Middle East is in something approaching free-fall”. He wrote, “It is hard to make sense of a region that consists of family-run kingdoms, ‘thugdoms’, police states, military dictatorships, democratically directed ethnoreligious tyrannies and societies in a near Hobbesian State of nature”.

Secularism, he says, is in retreat. Aspirations for a democratic Islamism, supported by Qatar, Tunis and Turkey, are under attack by a league of conservative Arab autocracies let by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The Sunni-Shia schism has intensified.

All this is against a backcloth of the US maintaining 60,000 military personnel in the region, despite all Trump’s and Biden’s promises to end the “forever wars”. The US has fallen into a pattern of military-driven, diplomacy-free, policy in the Middle East. It is reliably estimated that 4 million Muslims have died because of all the American post-Cold War interventions in the Middle East

Moscow is now the great power capital to go to, for both major and minor actors. Apart from Syria, Moscow uses its adept and hardworking diplomats to try and mediate issues in Iran, Israel, Egypt and Turkey. Russia carries little baggage in the region, apart from Syria, and is therefore often a more plausible interlocutor than Western nations. At present its foreign ministry is trying to bring al-Assad round to the idea of writing a new constitution that might check his despotic power.

Since the 9/11 blowing up of New York’s World Trade Center, according to Freeman, the US has spent or committed almost 7 trillion US dollars to control and contain trends and events in the Middle East. At present, it is spending 75 million dollars a year on its military presence in the Gulf. This enormous sum has been given at the cost of what might have been spent on American schools, health services, climate change programs and infrastructure renewal. Not one American intervention has achieved its objectives.

As it happens, US interests are on the wane. US energy imports from the Middle East are no longer needed. The US, over the last few years, has so successfully exploited its enormous shale oil and gas reserves by “fracking” that it no longer needs to import them, except some from West Africa and Mexico.

(I first read about the possibility of shale oil in an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine forty years ago. Obviously, no one in the White House bothered to read that prescient article. If they had the US would have re-written the plans on the necessity for intervention in the Middle East. This could have avoided hundreds of thousands of deaths.)

Ironically, Saudi oil’s largest markets today are China and India. The West, it should be noted, holds a massive Strategic Petroleum Reserve to fall back on if there were serious disturbances in the oil markets.

No longer a major exporter

A few years ago, the US was the largest exporter of goods and services to the Middle East. No longer. China and the European Union are well ahead. Tragically half of US arms exports go there and the amount is steadily increasing.

But isn’t that necessary when terrorist groups swarm all over the region and constantly threaten the US, Europe and Russia? The fact is that the “Global War on Terrorism” has multiplied rather than depleted the ranks of these terrorists. A recent report by the respected Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that home-grown white men in far-right groups in the US are the worst terrorists in terms of lives taken.

It is difficult to see how the West can repair the damage it has wrought. This is especially so when we have to recognize that Islam is in a crisis of its own, rather akin to what tormented the Christian nations before the Enlightenment. Competing attitudes prevail, some of them with near murderous intent. Islam used to be the most tolerant of the Abrahamic religions. It has lost much of this. In turn, most policymakers in the West seem unable to create empathy for societies they have helped rend asunder.

What can America and its European partners do to ameliorate this string of horrors that seems too often to be like a terminal disease? I don’t have an easy answer, any more than does a surgeon in the hospital trying to save the life of a motorist knocked down and left badly bleeding, who had to wait for the ambulance for half an hour or more to take him to the operating theatre.

Surely, at the least, the West should do no more damage. Get the military out and the aid in. Stop arms sales. Open markets for the Middle East exports wider.

Then go on from there.

* Note for editors: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com 

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